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Retention of UC Riverside students in STEM fields receives major financial boost

May 29th, 2014
Retention of UC Riverside students in STEM fields receives major financial boost
In this image, UC Riverside Distinguished Professor of Genetics Susan Wessler works with students in the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory. Credit: Lonnie Duka.

Sixty percent of students in the United States who begin college intending to major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fail to earn a STEM degree. Even more concerning is that only 20 percent of students from underrepresented ethnic groups persist in STEM studies.

To help address this higher education crisis, the University of California, Riverside has received a five-year grant totaling $2.4 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to fund a project aimed at addressing the challenges to STEM success faced by some students—particularly, students from underrepresented minority groups at UC Riverside.

Currently, many undergraduates who enter as majors in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) end up transferring to, and graduating in, non-CNAS majors in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

"A good many of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and, as a result, they don't have many role models—especially in science," said Susan Wessler, a distinguished professor of genetics in the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences and the principal investigator of the grant. "Further, many of them have huge financial concerns. What this does is it makes it harder for us to attract incoming students into science. This grant will greatly assist us in our overall efforts at convincing students that science, where many well-paying jobs are to be found, is a good place for them to spend their careers."

Specifically, the grant will allow the project, titled "Sustaining Academic Leadership for STEM Achievement" (HHMI-SALSA), to provide lower division science students with early research immersion as well as career exploration and mentoring, using an already successful first-year "learning community" program at UCR as the feeder pipeline. Those students successfully retained through the lower division will be handed off into upper division research, internship and career opportunities.

The research immersion will be accomplished through increased student participation in the popular "Dynamic Genome" course—a hands-on bioinformatics lab course already being taught in UCR's Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory, in which freshmen are the first to analyze mobile DNA or transposable elements in plant genomes.

"The students learn to use state-of-the-art equipment and computational biology software in this course," said James Burnette III, a molecular biologist and academic coordinator in CNAS who teaches the course along with Wessler. "Paired with the background taught and lessons in experimental design, they are prepared to be immersed in research and excel in STEM careers."

Launched in 2007, the CNAS learning communities have proven to be particularly effective for underprepared, first-generation, first-year students. They give incoming students a collective identity and purpose in science and discovery by assigning them into cohorts of 24, with each cohort placed in the same mathematics, introductory chemistry and introductory biology courses throughout the students' first year.

"Learning communities, active learning with early research engagement, and career and peer mentoring all play essential roles in helping first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students become more successful in rigorous science majors," said Michael McKibben, the divisional dean for student academic affairs in CNAS and a co-principal investigator of the grant. "These academic interventions are especially critical in the first two years, when STEM major attrition is highest, and will enable UCR to continue its lead role in providing access to a STEM education for UC's most diverse student body."

Currently, the Dynamic Genome course is offered in nine sections each year. HHMI-SALSA will increase the number of sections to 24 over the next five years (one new section added per quarter), allowing nearly 600 students—more than one-third of incoming CNAS students—to take the course. Other CNAS faculty, whose research labs use a variety of model organisms—the fruit fly, roundworm, fungi—to address current biological problems, will be involved in teaching the new sections at the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory.

According to Wessler, the holder of a University of California President's Chair, the timing of the grant is ideal because a National Science Foundation STEP grant UCR received last year has increased the capacity of the learning communities, which help generate the Dynamic Genome course students. In combination with this NSF grant, the HHMI-SALSA grant will give UCR greater capacity for critical programmatic enhancements to help retain undergraduate students in STEM majors.

"We are also extremely fortunate to have received generous gifts from Rochelle Campbell, a science-passionate donor, which helped finance the recent expansion of the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory," Wessler said.

HHMI-SALSA also will:

  • Partner with UCR's Medical Scholars Program—a comprehensive support program for disadvantaged students in the sciences aimed at increasing matriculation into medical school or other health profession postgraduate programs—to train third and fourth year Dynamic Genome graduates as "undergraduate learning assistants" ready to serve as near-peer mentors for all Dynamic Genome sections.
  • Partner with CALTEACH UC Science Mathematics Initiative to offer summer scientific teaching workshops that partner Dynamic Genome graduates with local high school teachers.
  • Incorporate strategies to make Dynamic Genome students aware of K-12 STEM teaching careers.
  • Significantly increase the number of Dynamic Genome grads engaged in research with UCR faculty during their first summer.
  • Sponsor a yearly early sophomore career planning and exploration (ESCAPE) workshop, where CNAS alumni and supporters come to UCR to directly mentor and network with students on selecting STEM careers.
  • Use a sophisticated software platform to develop a novel, interaction-heavy online "statistics for life sciences" course to be taken by Dynamic Genome graduates in the summer after their first year.

"Currently, 50-75 percent of life science majors wait to take an introductory statistics course until their third or fourth year, which is too late for them to maximize the benefits of applying statistical methods in many of their science courses," Wessler said. "Some students, therefore, fail to persist in STEM disciplines, not having had an opportunity to apply statistical methods, or see their relevance, to understanding a field of study."

A total of 170 research universities submitted research proposals to HHMI in the 2014 competition for the grants. The institute awarded only 37 grants, totaling $60 million over five years. Titled "Sustaining Excellence," the competition encouraged "research universities to develop effective strategies that lead to significant and sustained improvement in the persistence in science by all students, including those students who belong to groups underrepresented in science."

Provided by University of California - Riverside

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